Degrees of contempt: Universities count losses as MPs harden resolve to teach sector a lesson

Degrees of contempt: Universities count losses as MPs harden resolve to teach sector a lesson

Chip Le Grand – The Age – Saturday 06 June 2020

Scott Morrison’s headline grabber when he addressed the National Press Club two weeks ago was his pledge to collaborate with unions and employers to overhaul the industrial relations system.

But it was another line within the Prime Minister’s speech that caught the attention of university administrators wondering whether a truce might be called in another protracted conflict.

Mr Morrison noted that some young people were enrolling in universities when they would be better off in TAFE. “I want those trade and skills jobs to be aspired to, not looked down upon or seen as a second best option,” he said. “It is a first-best option.”

Not for the first time, the PM was making a calculated pitch to his people, the legion of tradies with whom he shares the Sutherland Shire, at the expense of university-educated elites.

This is seen by Labor as a false divide. Within the university sector, it is cited as evidence of growing federal government hostility towards them at their time of greatest need.

“It is almost personal,” said one senior administrator. “It is a different level of hostility. It is not the usual stoush over money.”

The strained relationship between government and universities is most readily seen in the impasse surrounding JobKeeper, the government’s emergency wage subsidy. Through repeated tweaks of design, the scheme has been kept inaccessible to public universities and their staff now facing wage cuts and job losses.

These changes – an insistence that universities must include government grants as revenue for the purpose of JobKeeper, the quarantining of universities from the lower qualification threshold required by other not-for-profits and the requirement for universities to be assessed on revenue over six months rather than a single month – are each defended by government on public policy grounds.

ANU Professor Andrew Norton, an expert in higher education policy, agreed that JobKeeper, a scheme primarily intended to keep cash-stricken businesses afloat and in touch with their workforce through the pandemic, was never a good fit for universities. “It is very unlikely that a public university would be allowed to go broke,” he said.

Yet, had there been goodwill towards universities, JobKeeper could have been made available to them. James Paterson, a Liberal Senator who helped stiffen his party’s resolve against special pleading by the universities, said there is little to none.

“Universities have not done themselves many favours in recent years,” he said. “They’ve resisted reforms to put themselves on a more secure financial footing. They’ve ignored warnings about their overexposure to the international student market. They’ve dragged their feet on free speech on campus and academic freedom.”

Then there is the consternation of the Wolverines – a cross-party group of sharp-clawed MPs alarmed at China’s influence within our universities and other cultural institutions.

“But this crisis offers an opportunity to address these issues if the sector is willing to step up and take responsibility,” Senator Paterson added.

Education Minister Dan Tehan is not quite as critical of universities but wants them to put less energy into chasing international students and more into educating our own.

“There is a perception that the focus on international students has taken away from the core responsibility of our universities: to educate and skill young Australians,” he said. “That is the number one objective. That is why the Commonwealth puts $18.5 billion into the sector annually.

“If we can’t get the international student market back there will be a significant hit to the sector’s revenue, especially at some of the larger universities. No question. But we have time to work through this and we need to work through it sensibly”.

On this last point, Australia’s largest and most influential universities agree.

Vicki Thompson is the chief executive of the Group of Eight, the representative body for sandstone universities which together teach about 400,000 students. One-third of those are foreign students, primarily from China, who due to the disruption of the pandemic are uncertain to enrol for this year’s second semester.

Ms Thompson said the COVID crisis is an opportunity for universities to reframe their relationship with the federal government.

“Now, more than ever we need a true partnership with the government where they don’t revert to tired and frankly erroneous claims of largesse and irrelevance,” she said.

“The post-COVID world will be as different for us as for all other sectors. We know there is no return to the status quo, so, now is the time to attempt, with real commitment, to rest the agenda and work as Team Australia. If that doesn’t happen every Australian will be the poorer. The Group of Eight is committed and we have to trust government also is.”

That remains unclear.

Liberal Party antipathy towards the universities is deeply entrenched, dating back to the bruising dispute over funding cuts in the early years of the Howard government. It again flared on the eve of the 2019 election, when vice-chancellors treated with disdain an attempt by Mr Tehan to install greater protections for free speech on university campuses.

A government-commissioned report by Robert French, the University of Western Australia chancellor and a former High Court chief justice, recommended a voluntary code for universities to safeguard free speech.

The French report was released last April. With opinion polls showing the issue would almost certainly die with the government after the May election, the response from the universities was dismissive. “There is no question the sector decided to wait out the government,” a Liberal MP said.

They never imagined the wait would be this hard.


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